Countering Gerrymandered Courts: Comment on Miriam Seifter’s 'Countermajoritarian Legislatures'
Columbia Law Review Online, Forthcoming
16 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2021 Last revised: 1 Dec 2021
Date Written: November 1, 2021
Miriam Seifter’s “Countermajoritarian Legislatures” (forthcoming Columbia L. Rev. 2022) makes a series of important observations, with a thoughtful synthesis with practical impact on constitutional doctrine. Seifter builds on a well-known fact: Gerrymandering is especially anti-democratic in many state legislatures. She notes that major areas of federal and state constitutional law turn on a mistaken assumption that legislatures are more democratic than the courts, especially controversial in the recent litigation – and surely future contests -- over presidential elections. Then she adds her key insight: State legislatures are usually more anti-democratic due to gerrymandering than their governors and judges, who are (generally) elected state-wide, and thus, courts and policy-makers should rely more on those branches to protect democratic norms and institutions.
This comment offers a friendly amendment: These observations are true, so long as states do not gerrymander their state supreme courts into anti-democratic districts. The problem is that some states do use districts for their state judicial elections, and there are growing concerns about both parties using gerrymandering for their advantage.
This comment begins with some observations about the democracy and hypocrisies in the Supreme Court’s recent reflections on state legislatures vs. courts. Then it summarizes the mid-nineteenth-century’s rise of judicial elections along with local judicial districting. Today, state court seats have become the new battleground of gerrymandering by both parties. Then this comment identifies a problem: the exception for state judicial districts not to follow the “one-person/one-vote” rule; and a countervailing trend: elected judges are similar enough to other elected officials to be subject to other election rules (e.g., the Voting Rights Act), but are different enough to have special First and Fourteenth Amendment rules to protect “the rule of law” and the “integrity” of the courts. Following those doctrinal tends, this comment suggests some possible solutions: 1) end the Baker v. Carr exception; 2) adopt a special rule against partisan gerrymandering for judges; 3) and the most manageable solution: a bright-line against all state court districting, so that all state judicial districts must be state-wide. This last proposal replaces one prophylactic rule (one-person/one-vote) with another as the best way to counter the anti-democratic gerrymandering of state courts and to protect against asymmetric beanball against democratic norms.
Keywords: Legal history, constitutional law, separation of powers, gerrymandering, judicial ethics
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